CASPER — Wyoming’s congressional delegation voted in favor of billions of dollars in stimulus funding Wednesday afternoon, supporting a bipartisan effort to stabilize the U.S. economy as the coronavirus outbreak threatens to bring the U.S. into a recession.
The roughly $100 billion stimulus package — deemed to be “phase two” of a three-pronged effort to kick-start the economy — would reimburse small businesses who provide paid sick days and emergency leave to those affected by the coronavirus while amending U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines to suspend work requirements for programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and introduce certain waivers for the school meal programs.
The first package — which has already been approved by Congress — put forward $8.3 billion in funding to increase the availability of tests, support public and private efforts toward developing a vaccine, and provide some initial assistance to small businesses through an emergency lending program for those impacted hardest by the crisis. According to a newsletter from Rep. Liz Cheney’s office sent Wednesday, counties considered by the Small Business Administration to be “economic disaster regions” in Wyoming include Park, Uinta, Teton, and Sweetwater counties.
“The Coronavirus pandemic is an unprecedented public health and economic crisis that will impact every one of us across Wyoming and the nation,” Cheney wrote in a statement. “I am working closely with state and local officials to ensure we are doing everything possible to respond rapidly to the medical and economic needs of Wyoming’s people. Congress has passed two emergency bills that will expand resources available to Wyoming communities for medical care and economic relief.”
For Senate Republicans, aid packages are a necessary expense to redress the concerns facing many of their most at-risk constituents while providing certainty for larger industries facing upheaval during the current economic crisis that has evolved even from just days ago.
The successful passage of the bill also sets the stage for negotiations on a third stimulus bill, intended to expend hundreds of billions of dollars to various sectors in an effort to bolster troubled sectors of the economy (like the airline and energy industries) while providing hundreds of billions of dollars in financial support for small businesses.
“When we started work on (that first bill), we didn’t realize how significant the shutdown of the economy would be,” Wyoming’s junior Sen. John Barrasso said in an interview with the Star-Tribune Wednesday afternoon. “This third bill — that we are in the middle of working on right now — is going to be much larger, and will provide immediate relief for the people impacted by government action. Because it is government action that is shutting down the economy.”
“To me, we’re in the middle of a rescue operation,” he added. “The medical part, to contain the virus, and providing immediate relief to people who will find themselves out of work and the businesses who, a week ago, were doing well and were profitable but now — due to the virus — find themselves closed with no way to earn income or pay salaries.”
The overall price tag for the entirety of the phase three stimulus package is anticipated to reach about $1 trillion, according to a Treasury Department memo circulated among the media earlier this week.
While politically popular — as well as necessary, at a time where controlling the outbreak requires a near shutdown of all economic activity — the spending package nonetheless caused some heartburn among lawmakers like Rep. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, and Sen. Rick Scott, R-Florida, who opposed any and all bailouts for major corporations, saying “they are smart people and will figure it out."
Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi — who voted in favor of the relief legislation — did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
While Barrasso mentioned it is important to address the needs of all parts of the economy, he stressed that the most critical part of the package lies with the assistance anticipated for local businesses and citizens, ensuring the average person can remain in their homes and have their basic needs taken care of while businesses can stay solvent long enough for the crisis to pass.
Though Barrasso didn’t offer specifics on the content of the legislation — which could include small business loans, health care provisions to assist small community hospitals and more — he mentioned that the primary focus of the legislation will lie with support for small businesses and the workers themselves, particularly as unemployment offices across the country have been inundated with new claims.
“We need the economy to be working for all of us,” he said. “We’ve had such a robust and growing economy up until the virus struck and — until we get this virus controlled — we will not have a growing economy or be able to recover. My focus right now is getting the virus behind us by figuring out ways to treat it, by preventing additional spread inventing a vaccine. ... The quicker we can get that done, the quicker we can get this behind us and the sooner the country will be able to recover economically.”
However, in a Wednesday morning interview on Fox Business, the senator — who made his name as a doctor in his early years in Wyoming politics — stopped short of calling for a full-on economic shutdown of the country, similar to hard-line containment measures seen in countries like China, where the virus originated, and Italy, one of the epicenters of the crisis in Europe.
While he declined to comment extensively on the current administration’s response to containing the virus thus far — "I'm not going to point fingers," he said Wednesday, saying he preferred instead to focus on the future — he said that he supported the president’s approach to encourage good behavior and limit large-scale social gatherings, measures he called “reasonable and responsible” means of combating the spread of the virus as long as residents understand what is at stake.
“This is already impacting our lives and our livelihoods,” Barrasso told the Star-Tribune. “We will not allow this to impact our liberty.”